The virtual census: profanity in video games (Ivory et al., 2009)

Several months ago, Dmitri Williams sent word on the internet about his collaborative content analysis work on video game characters. His words were about the gender and racial representations of video game characters and how white and adult male characters are the majority in video games whereas female and minority group characters were under represented. His publication threw fits of rage among the monkeys, while among rational human beings they sought to explain such disproportionate ratio and I procrastinated. I was going to read over the comments from various websites and use them as material for a blog post. I’ll do that sometime soon. [1][2][3][4][5]

Since it’s a collaborative work, there should’ve been more than just one paper and if I had paid more attention, these two articles would have also receive some attention.

I’ll start with the profanities in video games.


Although violent video game content and its effects have been examined extensively by empirical research, verbal aggression in the form of profanity has received less attention. Building on preliminary findings from previous studies, an extensive content analysis of profanity in video games was conducted using a sample of the 150 top-selling video games across all popular game platforms (including home consoles, portable consoles, and personal computers). The frequency of profanity, both in general and across three profanity categories, was measured and compared to games’ ratings, sales, and platforms. Generally, profanity was found in about one in five games and appeared primarily in games rated for teenagers or above. Games containing profanity, however, tended to contain it frequently. Profanity was not found to be related to games’ sales or platforms.

More info on the first paper can be found at Terra Nova. The other paper can be read here.

They identified video games that contained profanities based on the delivery through either game dialogue, background music and game text. They coded the frequency of types of profanities: the seven dirty words, strong profanity, excretory words (e.g. asshole), strong emotion and offense (e.g. bitch), and mild profanity (e.g. hell).

They found 104 (78.95% of sample) did not contain any profanity at all. 29 games (21.09%) contain profanity. Among those profane video games, profanity in game dialogue is present in all of them, 7 games contained profanity in background music, 4 games in game text and finally just 2 games contained profanity in all delivery method. Among them, these games are rated within the teen or more likely mature rating.

So how often? In a span of a 30 minute gaming session, the average number of profanities found on the screen is about 13.69 (SD = 43.22). It may look infrequent, but there’s a huge variability across the sample of 29. The authors wrote some distracting statistics (i.e. giving out the overall average of the entire sample). The average number of the seven dirty words is about 19 times (SD = 45.75). Those that has strong profanity, 9 times (SD = 20.65). Mild profanity, 3 times (SD =2.6). Again, it may look infrequent, but there’s a huge variability. I wished the authors included comparisons of profanities from television or movies studies to demonstrate some kind of differences.

From what I can interpret, the inclusion of profanity in video games entails a considerable decision-making among video game developers and is likely used to set the tone of a video game. So, games with profanities are likely in a genre that’s acceptable or expected to contain them, say gangster or war-themed games. Something you’d expect the same from the film genres. Although, this does not free the developers blame from making it gratuitous, given the frequency and the overly use of stereotypes. A simple solution is to reduce the amount a bit or set the swearing scripts to occur less often.

The authors suggested more future studies looking at profanities’ context and its associations with other game content like violence. Other suggestions include analyzing the trend over time on the use of profanity in games, profanity in multiplayer settings (also considered in my research ideas pile), profanities effects on verbal aggression, and the effects on profanity use in real life or internet settings.

Ivory, J. D., Williams, D. C., Martins, N., & Consalvo, M. (2009). Good clean fun? A content analysis of profanity in video games and its prevalence across game systems and ratings. Cyberpsychology & Behavior, 12 (4), 457-460.


3 thoughts on “The virtual census: profanity in video games (Ivory et al., 2009)

  1. Pingback: The virtual census: the female body in video games (Martins et al., 2009) « VG Researcher – Psychology

  2. Stumbled across your blog while searching through yahoo. I read the first paragraph and its fantastic! I don’t have time to finish it now, but I have bookmarked this site and will read the rest later. : )

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